Which Came First, the Verse or the Chorus?

A common song structure is to repeat the chorus after each verse. This used to be a fairly common practice in poetry too, although in poetry the verses are usually called stanzas and the chorus is called a refrain. Typically the verses tell the story of the song and the chorus summarizes or comments on that story. While each verse is different, the chorus usually stays the same, or is only minimally altered with each singing.

Often the chorus is the most memorable part of a song, what you remember long after you’ve forgotten the words or tune of the verses. So it seems sensible to wonder why the chorus doesn’t come first in some songs. And indeed, there are songs where it does.

An example of this alternate structure is Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which appeared on an album of his in 1965. However, a band called the Byrds released their version of the song shortly before Dylan’s version.

Perhaps one marker of a good song is if someone else can do a version that’s more memorable than the author’s. This song might serve as an example of that. In many people’s minds, the version of Dylan’s song that they think of first is the one by the Byrds.

Here’s a video of the Byrds performing their version. The chorus that opens the song begins with the famous line:

      Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me

Dylan’s version consists of five choruses and four verses, making it over five minutes long. Perhaps one of the reasons why we like the Byrds’ version is that they only sing two choruses and a single verse, in under three minutes. (Two to three minutes is kind of the sweet spot for pop song length.)

One of this video’s delights is the young woman dancing Zelig-like next to the stage, drifting in and out of frame, a reminder that Dylan reportedly liked the Byrds’ version because he realized you could dance to it, unlike his version, which is sung in a traditional folk style. Here he is at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival in what is probably one of his earliest performances of the song. No electric instruments or other musicians in this version, just acoustic guitar and harmonica:

What do the lines of this song mean and what is the song even about? Don’t feel bad if you find the lyrics to be kind of cryptic, that’s a common reaction to many of Dylan’s songs.

Here’s another example of a song where the chorus comes first, “Somebody Help Me,” written by the Jamaican reggae singer Jackie Edwards for the Spencer Davis Group, a British band of the 60s. The opening chorus consists mostly of repeating the song’s title, then we get the first verse:

      When I was just a little boy of seventeen,
      I had a girl, she was my queen.
      She didn’t love me like I loved her, now I know.
      Now I’m so lonesome on my own.

Technically, this could be considered the start of a poem in meter, with alternating lines of iambic hexameter and iambic tetrameter. Song lyrics often don’t exhibit this kind of metric regularity, primarily because they’re intended to be sung, not recited or read silently, and singing has additional ways of emphasizing syllables than just the stress that’s the basis of English poetic meter.

Here’s a video of the Spencer Davis Group performing this song in 1966 on the German TV show “Beat-Club.”

There’s a lot to like about this video. It’s hard not to smile at how young Steve Winwood looks while singing lyrics that are almost nostalgic. And at how informally the musicians are dressed compared to the relative formality of the Byrds’ 60s getup, and how some of the guys in both videos’ audiences are wearing ties.

This song is also a good candidate for a list of two-minute classics (get in, get out, in two minutes or thereabout). And unlike so much of the music performed on TV shows back then, this is a live performance, not a lip-synched simulation:

Are there poems where the refrain comes first? Yes, of course. An example that you might already be familiar with, “Lord Randall,” is an anonymous border ballad from the 17th century or earlier. This ballad can be either recited or sung, reflecting the historical closeness of poetry and song.

The first verse gives the form of each verse that follows, with lines one and two functioning as a kind of refrain. The last phrase of line three also repeats, along with line four in all but the last verse. In fact, this ballad is mostly repetition:

      “Oh where ha’e ye been, Lord Randall my son?
      O where ha’e ye been, my handsome young man?”
      “I ha’e been to the wild wood: mother, make my bed soon,
      For I’m weary wi’ hunting, and fain wald lie down.”

The last verse reveals that Lord Randall is dying. This ballad is also worth knowing because Dylan adopted its form for his 1963 song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” But in Dylan’s song, instead of a tragic revelation, we get an apocalyptic vision of the world. Each verse begins with a variation of the ballad’s question (and the only rhymed lines in otherwise unrhymed lyrics, something very rare with Dylan):

      Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
      Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?

And like “Lord Randall,” Dylan’s verses also repeat at the end:

      And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
      And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Here’s Dylan performing his song in 1975:

© 10 Franks 2022